Brussels, June 2020 – Media4Democracy convened a series of live webinars for past and current Fellows of its Strengthening Institutions in Support of Media Pluralism Fellowship Programme.
The four webinars focused on the crisis facing media resulting from COVID-19 and brought together current Fellows from Maldives and former Fellows from Tanzania, Rwanda, and Kyrgyzstan.
The webinars provided a platform for Fellows to learn from experts and each other about how their organisations can help address the profound challenges facing independent media in each of their countries. Respective EU Delegations, all directly involved in the Fellowship activities, were also included in these sessions.
Mogens Blicher Bjorregård and Henrik Ahrens, experts who have led the Fellowship programme launched in 2018, also designed and led these interactive webinars.
For each Fellowship programme, Media4Democracy works closely with respective EU Delegations to select a group of five or six male and female Fellows, who spend three weeks in Denmark at the Danish Union of Journalists. There they engage in an intensive, experiential curriculum of training and meetings with experts and peers. As part of the programme, Fellows receive leadership coaching uniquely designed for media institutions, and individual mentoring to design change projects. On return home, Fellows are mentored while implementing their projects and supported to engage with the EU Delegation and relevant media and civil society stakeholders.
Fellowship adaptation to COVID context
With the emergence of COVID-19, Media4Democracy has adapted the Maldives programme to a hybrid format mixing online learning with a delayed visit by the Fellows to Denmark, now planned for some time during 2021.
Additionally, Media4Democracy decided that because of the profound impact of the pandemic on media and media institutions it was valuable to bring all cohorts of Fellows together for the first time to consider priority issues and identify ideas and priorities for responding to the current crisis.
The four webinars were held over two weeks in June 2020 with participation ranging from between eight and 12 Fellows and EU Delegation staff for each session, depending on the relevance of the topic in each country.
The webinars were organised into the following topics:
Participants discussed the significant impact of COVID-19 on the financial crisis for media and described the closure of media outlets, the reduction in content, the loss of jobs and some delays in disbursement of donor funding. The Fellows agreed that one priority is to work with other organisations to advocate for the media sector to be included as part of any government or donor-led economic recovery packages, and to ensure government advertising spending and tax incentives are spread fairly across media outlets. In addition, Fellows were provided with links to emergencies funds available to support media to survive through the crisis.
Fellows discussed the risks faced by media and media institutions as a result of their governments – in Kyrgyzstan, Tanzania and Maldives – introducing emergency legislation or using existing provisions to restrict freedom of expression generally and, more specifically, to curtail the rights of journalists to access information and report openly on COVID-19. Participants shared experiences of the best ways for journalists and others to address the emergency laws. These restrictions may last beyond the current crisis and participants agreed that it was essential for sustained national and international advocacy efforts to raise awareness of this issue and pressure governments to reverse the trend.
Fellows identified the need for media in their countries to be able to rise to the challenge of producing accurate information about COVID-19 to help combat the influence of harmful disinformation and misinformation proliferating across social media. They discussed the need for collaboration between media and fact-checking organisations and the need to find innovative ways to carry out investigative journalism throughout the pandemic and during the aftermath.
The challenges discussed during the first three webinars have left journalists in an even more vulnerable situation than before the pandemic and Fellows discussed that media outlets and journalists need support on a practical level – with access to equipment, material and skills to protect themselves – as well as support to ensure that violations of their rights are raised at a national and international level. Fellows were encouraged to work across the sector to engage with international NGOs and UNESCO to monitor, report on and address violations during the crisis.
Since the webinar series closed, feedback from Fellows shows that all participants rated them relevant and useful. Participating institutional leaders from Tanzania and Rwanda said they would continue to look for areas in which their collaboration could enhance the effectiveness of actions.
The Maldives cohort of six Fellows will begin the remote learning phase of their Fellowship programme in September, with regular online group webinars and individual coaching sessions.